The beauty and the significance of our living environments, our place on the map of life, so to speak, is everywhere. But land is too often considered by urban planners and developers more in terms of a commodity, sold by square meters, than as a place of meaning, within the value equation. In the master planning of cities too, areas and buildings of our urban and natural environments are put aside, and classified as heritage or natural conservation sites. Ideally, all public spaces would be considered to have natural heritage value; most privately-owned spaces too. While of course, not all spaces can or should be “classified” as such, we do need to have a collective shift in our way of thinking so as to take a more unified approach to the innate human values and attachments to land and buildings. This is ever more important in light of our shared environmental concerns. Transforming existing places and buildings, notably in ever more dense urban contexts is one way of respecting our attachments to the past and bringing them into the present, the future.
Adaptive reuse projects are occasions to say that, as architects, we welcome the complexity of our cities’ fabric, with its layers of history, and attachments, more complex needs in relation to transforming the past in ways that usher it into the future with ongoing relevance and carefully integrated innovations. When a decision is made to adapt an existing building, for studioMilou, it’s an occasion to enter into the challenging process of defining elegant solutions to complex design problems. For example, the project of the “Carreau du Temple” in Paris illustrates how the rare and beautiful metallic architecture of the 19th century steel and glass tradition can be saved and made meaningful and functional in contemporary city life. We renovated this tired market place, keeping its essential structures and materials, while making difficult decisions to let some aspects go. The complexity lay in ensuring the ‘soul’ of the building and its innate character remained in place. To do this, we took the local community concerns into account on all aspects of the project, worked with some of France’s leading trade and craftsmen, and took the decision to avoid sensationalizing the building. We lightened structures and introduced more light. Cultural and sporting facilities, for community use, were built without changing the overall structure, and without undermining the much-loved exterior’s heritage fabric. Our colour palette and choice of materials privilege unity, and seamless integration of the past with very new contemporary functions. Today, this building is one of the city’s most ‘in-demand’ venues, for cultural, sporting and various industry events, including exhibitions,
fashion shows and theatre.
key ingredients and principles of a successful project
For studioMilou, if I can sum up some of the essential elements of a successful adaptive reuse project, they would include respecting the innate character of a building, first of all by coming to know the attachment of the communities to the site and its historic and urban or other contexts. Before embarking on any design for an existing building, I spend a lot of time walking around and near the site, observing it, feeling and researching it. Usually, an idea will appear quite suddenly, and I know it may be the right one when the solution is simple, legible. For the National Gallery Singapore, the challenges of uniting two large, colonial administrative buildings to create one contemporary visual arts institution, were enormous. Both buildings, a former Supreme Court and a City Hall, were monumental, and heavy. Their new mission was to be dramatically different, and the client asked for minimal interventions. The idea of a fine rooftop line to unite them from above, and a sweeping concourse basement to unite them from below, came after lengthy meditation and offered a solution that left the original structures largely intact.
After a successful adaptive reuse project, the public tends to return, time and time again, due to what seems to be the reassuring feeling of continuity and stability that these projects create. To some extent, we could say that they play an important role today in reconciling the public with a pace of change and urban development that is galloping ahead of our capacity as human beings to really absorb it. There’s a feeling of loss, even if the wider public enjoys so many aspects of modern cities. In studioMilou, we’ve observed this situation in Paris, and for the Carreau du Temple, and in Singapore for the National Gallery with the result of the public surveys. In these surveys, we saw the overwhelming expression of relief from the public for the safeguarding and respectful reuse of these iconic buildings.
challenges and design approach
Adaptive reuse projects are not vastly different in nature from any other project. They are just more complex in the ways I described above. To some extent, any project can be seen as an adaptive reuse of something; the land, the space that people know and have in their memories. Even an apparently vacant piece of land is the custodian of millions of years of life and evolution, and many layers of meaning, some forgotten in death, others transmitted over time. Any project, even a new skyscraper, can be seen as an adaptive reuse of a part of our common geography. At the end of the day, it is up to the designer to take these layers on board or not, to embrace a site and a project’s complexity, or not. In an adaptive reuse project, it is key to identify on-site the strengths; the assets, the beauties of the site and to reveal them, to bring them out through the design in a respectful and inspired manner.
In Saint-Etienne in central eastern France, we were asked to work with a dilapidated 20th century factory in the town’s industrial zone. At first glance, it seemed to have no obvious quality or character. But we spent time at the site, in the city, looking and feeling ways to develop this large industrial and natural landscape into a theatre and school of the dramatic arts which could attract theatre – goers and students alike. We’ve been pleased to see the public and students take to the building, which like most of our projects, has maintained the essential traits and structures, and sought to work with them as a point of departure. This industrial architecture has been able to re-emerge through the new Comedie Saint-Etienne, giving the project a unique and unified character, which infuses the daily life of the school.
social and cultural significance of adaptive reuse
People, communities and cultures collectively understand the importance of historic sites and of continuity, even within the context of desired changes. Almost all cities and communities that have experienced rapid change and the development of urban environments at the cost of maintaining historic areas and buildings have expressed some kind of regret. As people, we need to look forward, and glance backwards constantly. Life is complex, so why not reflect this in our living environments? It’s easy to take some kind of scorched earth approach. It’s usually cheaper, but rarely creates environments conducive to the well-being and pride of communities, or places that inspire a young child towards a well-rounded education as he or she wanders, gazing freely. At the end of the day, I feel we are all skeptical about oversimplified solutions often provided by the building industry and the “culture of master planning”. Successful adaptive reuse projects are reassuring, and people are usually grateful when existing environments is integrated into new developments.